The Kabbalah of Righteous Generosity

When I was a child each seat in the synagogue during High Holidays had a little card taped to the seat with a member’s name on it. The cards had tabs to be turned down to indicate how much one was willing to pledge that ranged from $100 to $10K. After the president’s pitch, ushers came through the aisles collecting the cards, and God help you if you didn’t turn one in.
Many of you have come to HaMakom in reaction to large religious institutions that seem to take advantage of the holiest night of the year, Kol Nidre, to reach into your pockets at a time when you are reaching deeply into yourselves to become better people. Your spiritual strivings are stunted by monetary requests, and maybe you’re disappointed that we too have asked for a contribution. You wonder why you need to buy a ticket for wanting to get close to God. Maybe you feel that you should be paid for taking the trouble to be here.
At the suggestion of our president, Leslie Davis, this evening I’ll do my best to explain both the practical and esoteric reasons for the subject of money on the High Holidays. Because Jewish communities do not collect contributions each time that they assemble, because more of us gather at the High Holidays than any other time of the year, and because tzedakah is an excellent way to bring God’s favor in this season of divine and self-judgment, there is no better moment for fundraising.
In the world to come, we won’t have to pay for postage, electricity, refreshment, or rabbis. Selling tickets for High Holidays is embarrassing, and we at HaMakom wrestle every year with it. I’m hoping that next year we won’t have to do this, but it depends upon a community understanding its responsibility to cosmic reciprocity, and this is where we need a little education. When Yogi Bhajan, the head of the Sikh community, first came to the United States, his ashram gave free yoga lessons and invited people to make contribution. When he found them slow to pick up on his invitation, he went out to the parking lot and threw down coins for them to ‘give’ back to the ashram. The Lubavitch rebbe used to give petitioners a dollar to give to a charity.
In the shtetl the rabbi wasn’t given a salary, only parsonage, because studying Torah is a privilege, not a profession. Contributing to the community was more than a pragmatic concern, it was part of the enlightened path. Our ancestors knew that the poor do more for the rich than the rich do for the poor, and they knew that sustaining the community was everyone’s task, no matter what their means.
I carry another early memory. I am seven years old, get an allowance and am known as the hoarder of money who is stuffing a piggy bank for something big, like a camera or tape recorder. The doorbell rings and my mother opens the door to a woman collecting contributions for the Red Cross.
My father sees me watching her curiously and asks if I’d like to give her something, and for no reason I can remember, I run to my bank and give her a preciously guarded dollar. She and my parents praise me profusely and I feel better than I’ve ever felt before, rich, powerful, and generous. I have become a builder in something greater than myself, and I have discovered Kabbalah, the technology that takes us under the surface and into the heart of higher meaning. Tzedakah saves from death, the rabbis teach, and I have been saved from selfishness.
Tzedakah, the Jewish word for giving, is commonly translated as charity, from the Latin caritas, which means Christian love. But Tzedakah means justice, it isn’t about emotion. It is simply doing the right thing, which means behaving like God. God’s primary relationship to the world is one of giving: God continually recreates the universe every day, and it is this ultimate kindness that is the foundation of the universe.
When we recognize that every breath we take is a gift of divine tzedakah, it encourages our own capacity to give. The more we behave like God, the closer we draw to the Giver of life, and so tzedakah becomes our path to God. The money we earn becomes divine service when we take a portion of it got tzedakah.
Many of you have expressed gratitude to us for gatherings that have given you a freedom from despair, for feeling connected, and for finding a community. Can we put a price on spiritual well-being? Besides physical health, what is worth more than this? Because we have lost the way to express our relationship to one another, we are burdened by confusion. Simply put, what exactly is our responsibility to one another? What claim do I have on you and what claim do you have on me? These questions are not academic. There are people in this room who worry about next month’s rent, the next meal. There are people in this room on pensions who faithfully give often and generously.
Jewish law requires the giving of a minimum of 10 percent and a maximum of 20 percent of all income for tzedakah. No one is exempt. Even the one who receives tzedakah is obligated to give. There are exceptions, however, to the 20 percent. During famine, any householder who has more than others must sell everything and give it all away until she has equaled herself to the community. We don’t have to make ourselves worse off than others, but we cannot hoard while others starve.
In the Book of Ruth, we learn that a wealthy family headed by a man named Machlon wants to escape the famine of Bet Lechem to avoid being besieged by hungry neighbors. For this Machlon, which means fat, dies and so do his sons. Only when his wife, Naomi, and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, behave with generosity do we see them and their society restored to peace.
The second exception to the 20 percent law is sickness. We live in a time where we all suffer from sickness of the soul. We are calloused from decadent living, dishonesty in the highest places, and a fundamental disregard of the sacred. Our soul sickness can only be cured by behaving with righteous generosity. While each of us is in the divine image, the way we create a place for God to dwell is between us in our recognition that we are interconnected.
Prayer is not always possible, even teshuvah sometimes eludes us, but tzedakah is always there as a purgative to clean out the corruption of our minds, bodies, and spirits. Tzedakah saves from death and it isn’t about physical death. It’s about the death that comes in our hearts when we see suffering and do not empathize. In this case, 20 percent doesn’t apply; how can there be a limit set to redeem ourselves?
In this season of introspection, we must judge our own financial requirements. We include all members of our household and satisfy their needs. We should be comfortable but should discourage unnecessary indulgence. With what remains, we disown it all and declare it ‘in trust’ for their rightful owners, whom we attempt to find.
This isn’t giving because of obligation. Rather, it is redistributing things that don’t belong to us-things entrusted to our care. God gives us what we need, and any excess is not really ours. Mercy and empathy will lead us to the rightful owners and it takes patience, discrimination, and judgment. This is how we choose where we give our excess. The discipline and habit of giving is the single most powerful tool for bringing Torah into our hearts and our lives.
This is also how we practice the gathering of sparks, the tikkun that will bring God’s presence into a shattered world. Some of us remember being taught to always wear clean underwear in case we were in an accident. But how many of us think about the last check we wrote? Forget the clean underwear. What does my latest VISA statement say about who I am and what I value?
Tomorrow morning we will read Isaiah 58, which makes clear what God wants of us: “Is such the fast I desire, a day for you to starve your bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?…No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.’
It’s about relationship and empathy, it’s about the mother presence of Shechinah, the face of God who gives life, who gives milk. This face of God shines through ours when we make a practice of tzedakah. It wasn’t only during the High Holidays that Jews traditionally made equitable dispersion of goods. They did it all the time: A birth, a birthday, a yahrzeit, a finding of a lost object, an appreciation for a member of the community, or any time that they wanted to acknowledge gratitude and humility to the One upon Who was their ground of being.
I will be transparent in our financial matters. We are intentionally lean. We don’t want a building, we love being partners here at St. Bede’s. I am a purposely a 25 percent rabbi so that we can be a community that is not dependent upon raising a large sum of money. This community has taken the responsibility to lead and manage itself 75 percent of the time. Look around and you’ll see that our staff is the staff of life, people who give from their hearts and pockets every day.
Your contributions allow us to help members in our midst to sustain themselves with dignity, and our intention is to reach beyond our community to others. Help us to be a community of compassion and empathy, and you’ll be helping yourselves as well. I invite you to take not one envelope home with you tonight but a handful to send to us throughout the year.
I’d like to close with an excerpt of a prayer written by Alice Shalvi, a dear friend, Orthodox Jew, peace activist, feminist, and model for us all in how to bring heaven to earth with tzedakah:
O God, creator of heaven and earth, creator of humankind and of all living things, grant me the power to feel as others feel, the power to listen and hear, to behold and truly see, to touch and be touched.
Enable me to be like Yourself-to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, comfort the bereaved. Guide me in the ways of tikkun olam, of mending the world. As I delight in a loving marriage of true minds, may I never forget the thousands of women battered and beaten by their spouses. As I rejoice in the bliss of my children and grandchildren, may I never forget the pleading eyes and swollen bellies of starving infants deprived of physical and emotional nourishment. May my womanÕs capacity for concern, compassion, and caring never be dulled by complacency or personal contentment.
May it be Your will.